Chapter One

The mornings were the worst. That was when I awoke from the dreams that came to swallow me up like sharks swimming in deep water. There were so many faces in the dreams. Girls who looked at me with terror in their eyes and begged for me to let them live. Men who shrieked like children as I tore off their fingers. Groups of people smiling at me in beatific joy as I ordered them to run headlong into slaughter. So, so many faces. And they were all dead.

I was the one who’d killed them.

Sometimes when I woke up in the mornings, gray light hammering into my skull through the holes in my threadbare curtains, I thought I wouldn’t be able to handle it anymore.

But I couldn’t end it. That wouldn’t be fair to all of those who’d died. It would give me peace. It would give me blissful nothingness. And I owed it to them to suffer. I could offer none of those faces anything to make up for what I’d done. All I could do was tell them I was sorry. And that I didn’t forgive myself. I never would. I’d punish myself for as long as it took.

Maybe the evenings were the worst. After the work of the day was done, and I’d put in my time on the farm hoeing and planting and harvesting. When the twilight came in and blanketed me before I was tired enough to sleep. When there was nothing to occupy myself with but thinking. When it seemed there wouldn’t be any way to handle the anguish if I didn’t channel it somehow.

The knives looked so tempting then.

But I’d stopped cutting myself.

It was juvenile. I wasn’t some teenager, wearing black clothes, hoping for the attention of my mommy or a guidance counselor. And the cutting made me weak. Too much blood loss meant I wasn’t productive. If I were weak, people got suspicious. And if people got suspicious…

It was just better to lie low.

But in the evenings, I’d stare at the knives, remembering how deliciously relieved I felt when I let them slice into my skin. As if all the pain of my memories was channeled into physical pain. As if, for a little while, the blood I was letting out of my body washed it all away. But I couldn’t do it anymore. It had been years since I had.

I’d had to stop because someone had noticed. A girl, one of the ones who worked in the fields with me, had seen my scabs when the sleeve of my shirt slid up as I was weeding in the corn fields. I’d managed to pass it off as an accidental injury, but I’d known then that I couldn’t take the risk of anyone finding out.

No one cut themselves anymore, not even angsty goth high school kids. There weren’t any angsty teenagers anymore. Not since Kieran and Eve had taken over. Now the world was a paradise. Everyone was happy. They worked happily. They ate happily. They sang and danced. Nothing bad happened anymore. No one was sad. I was glad for that. If I’d kept my powers, I would have killed them all. I knew that. But I couldn’t let myself succumb to that happiness. That was why, every morning, I chewed some leaves from a plant that blocked their influence, and kept me cocooned in my little bubble of misery and penance.

No. The mornings were the hardest.

Because every morning, I knew that if I didn’t chew the leaves, I could escape into their world—oblivion and joy. And every morning, I had to make sure I made the same choice. Chew the leaves.

Because Jason Wodden didn’t deserve happiness, and I had to make sure I never felt it ever again.

* * *

“The usual?” asked Abigail, the waitress at the diner where I had breakfast every morning. I was sitting at the bar. Abigail had her order pad at the ready, but I wasn’t sure why. We both knew I ordered the same thing every day.

I nodded, giving her a wide smile. I had to pretend to be as happy as everyone else or people would realize something was up. “Absolutely.”

Abigail bobbed her head and scurried off to put in my order: two eggs sunny-side up, bacon, and toast. I ate it every morning before heading to work on the farm, washing it down with a cup of black coffee. While I waited for my food, I watched the television, which was on in a corner with the closed captioning on. Instead of the noise of the TV, the diner piped in country music. I used to hate country music, but I found that I had very little taste for music, one way or another, those days. Living with the weight of hundreds of dead people on my soul made things like that not seem very important.

The news reporter on TV was talking about how Kieran and Eve were still searching for a miracle cure for their impotency. They wanted to have babies, and everyone on earth wanted them to have babies, but apparently, it wasn’t working very well. The news never went into specifics, but privately, I hoped that it was Kieran’s fault. I never liked the guy much, even before he participated in stealing my powers and taking over the world. I was glad not to have my powers, and I wasn’t the least bit bitter about how things had turned out, but let’s just say it would make me grin a little to find out my dick was bigger than his. I smirked, imagining for a brief moment hunting down Azazel just to ask her.

“Something funny?” Abigail set a coffee cup in front of me.

Startled, I looked up at her. “No, nothing.”

She poured coffee into my cup. “Too bad. You’re always so solemn, Jason. It would be nice to see you laughing about something.”

“I’m not solemn,” I said, feeling panicky. I thought I hid it well. If Abigail thought I seemed sad, did others think so too? Of course, Abigail was pretty much the only person I spoke to on a regular basis, and our conversations generally didn’t consist of much more than my ordering and her asking me if I wanted refills. She was probably the only person who knew my name, the only person whose name I knew.

“Oh, sure you are,” she said, setting down the coffee cup and leaning forward over the bar. “You’re the most intriguing person who comes into this diner. Every day, I watch you.” She grinned at me conspiratorially. “I wonder about you. Who is the man who’s always all alone, who never says anything?” She leaned back. “I don’t suppose you’d tell me, would you?”

The panic rose in my chest. I didn’t want to stand out. I’d spent my whole life standing out, being something special. Jason Wodden, the messiah. Jason Wodden, the crazed murderer. Jason Wodden, the abomination. Anonymity, that’s what I wanted. I didn’t want to raise curiosity in anyone, even waitresses at diners. “I’m no one,” I said, reaching for my coffee, avoiding her gaze.

“Well, I guess no one’s anything important really. No one except Kieran and Eve,” said Abigail. “I have this faint memory sometimes that it used to bother me, before they took over the world, that I wasn’t anything important. And then they came. And now everything is perfect and wonderful. We’re all so blessed.”

“Yes,” I said. I tried to get the right amount of adoration into my voice. “Kieran and Eve have saved us all.”

“They’re really so, so great,” she said, and I could hear in her voice that I’d completely missed the mark. She was swelling with joy. I couldn’t quite manage that much joy. It wasn’t in me. Perhaps I should stop coming to the diner. Perhaps I was tempting fate by being in public. Certainly, I could cook my own breakfast at home, couldn’t I? Why did I even bother coming here? But Abigail was still talking. I focused on her words instead of my thoughts. “Sometimes, when I think about how absolutely perfect they are, it makes me feel as though I’m going to explode from happiness, you know?”

“I know,” I said. But now I really wanted this conversation to be over. People these days could talk for hours about Kieran and Eve and how fabulous they were. People did talk about them for hours, in fact. All the time. It was boring, if you asked me, but then, happy people were boring. I’d never realized before how much of what made life interesting was really caught up in the bad stuff—the annoyances, the frustrations, the longings. Without all that, things were the same happy things all the time. But I had to keep up appearances, so I was stuck in this boring conversation. Maybe if I talked more, Abigail would become less interested in me. “I really hope they can figure out how to have a baby.”

“Oh!” Abigail was in rapture at the thought. “I do too. Can you imagine how amazingly beautiful a baby they’d make?”

“So amazingly beautiful.” Crap. Did I sound sarcastic? This was why I didn’t talk to people. I couldn’t pull it off. Besides, it was so much easier to let myself get sucked into my memories and my misery. They were real to me, not the bliss and joy that everyone else got from Kieran and Eve.

Abigail sighed, looking off into the distance and undoubtedly imagining a perfect baby. She turned back to me. “I better check on your food.”

I turned back to the television. The news reporter was still talking, although I didn’t know why we even bothered with the news anymore. Nothing bad happened anymore. No one stole things or killed people or started wars. It was perfect peace on earth. Bliss. Paradise. And I alone was the dark cloud inside the brightness. I read the closed captioning. “Kieran and Eve have announced their latest Festival and Games location and date,” it said.

I barely paid attention to this, but early this year, Kieran and Eve had started staging festivals at various locations around the world. They descended on a town for a day, and the occupants got to spend time drinking and watching the locals compete in various games and competitions. Everyone got excited about them, but everyone got excited about everything, from eating toast to going to work. It wasn’t as if this were ancient Rome, and Kieran and Eve had to placate the lower classes by giving them festivals. I didn’t know why they did it. Maybe they were bored too.

“The date is today,” read the closed captioning. “And the location is Olivia, Minnesota.”

A collective gasp rippled through the diner. We were living in Olivia, Minnesota.

Immediately, one of the waitresses switched off the country music and turned up the sound on the television. Everyone got up and gathered round to listen. Because it would look suspicious if I didn’t, I followed them. Everyone was excited because Kieran and Eve were coming here. Work was canceled for the day. Everyone was required to go out and have fun. Now. They were glad. I wanted the physical labor of working in the corn fields to help me fight off the memories of the dead faces that floated in my mind. That wasn’t going to happen.

Abigail was next to me. “Isn’t it so exciting?” She was already taking off her apron and name badge. I guessed that meant the diner was closed. Crap. I was hungry.

Abigail took my hand. “Spend the day with me today, Jason. It will be so much fun.”

Fun? I wasn’t good at that these days. But how could I get out of spending the day with her without arousing her suspicions? I didn’t think I could. I nodded. “Sounds like a blast.”

* * *

I shouldn’t have worried about food. When Kieran and Eve’s entourage arrived—over twenty helicopters that descended on the main square in town—they brought more food than the town had seen in months. Not that it bothered anyone. When people are perfectly happy, they tend to eat only as much as they need. They don’t overeat, and they don’t worry about where their next meal is going to come from. Kieran and Eve were set up on a pair of thrones in the center of the town. They urged everyone in town to eat, so eat they did. They gorged themselves on sausages and breads, on cheeses and oranges. Wine and beer flowed free, even though no one got drunk much these days. There wasn’t much point in drowning your sorrows when you were never sad. There wasn’t much point in celebrating when everything on earth left you ultimately ecstatic. There weren’t ups and downs, so there was no celebration. Kieran and Eve told the people to drink, and so they drank.

Abigail and I stuffed ourselves until we were full, and then we wandered through the streets together, watching children playing together, men and women laughing together. Everyone was happy. It was like any other day.

What was the point of these festivals?

I tried to stay out of the sight of either Kieran or Eve. They might recognize me, and I didn’t want to be recognized. Truthfully, in the five years since they’d taken over, they’d never tried to find me or bother me, but something inside me made me distrustful of them. They hadn’t bothered me yet, but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t. I laid low. I listened to Abigail as she told me her life story.

She’d lost both her parents as a small child and had been shuffled through the foster system, where she’d been abused by one of her foster mothers. This had continued through the period when Sutherland ruled the western part of the U.S., right after the solar flare. She’d come of age right after he’d been killed (by me and Azazel), and then spent a few years in hiding while the Witch of the OF (Azazel) pulled people into skirmishes and fights against Jason.

Abigail had a good laugh at that one. “You have the same name, don’t you?”

I was always worried that someone was going to notice me from those YouTube videos that had circulated around that time, but they seemed to be more concentrated on the east coast, where I’d been more active. I’d come west hoping to hide from my past. Thus far, it had worked.

Abigail’s story was pitiful. Devoid of any hope. She’d been raped by a group of marauders, become pregnant, and then lost the baby in a miscarriage. It was the kind of story that should have crippled a person. And, I noted, there were parts of it that were directly or indirectly my own fault. I’d helped destroy the entire country when Azazel and I had been fighting. The horrible things I’d done had wide-reaching effects. Abigail shouldn’t have been well-adjusted or happy. But because of Kieran and Eve, she was fine. I’d destroyed the world. They’d remade it.

I watched them as they sat on their thrones. They looked a little older. I guessed we all did. It had been five years after all. They wore robes in bright colors. They had crowns on their heads. That was a relatively new addition to their appearances. The crowns. They’d been wearing them for a year, perhaps. I wasn’t sure why. Maybe they really liked their power. Above us on their dais, they looked larger than life, more than human. Impartial gods to stare down at the riff raff, feeding them for their own amusement.

They were bored, weren’t they? I’d controlled a community before, kept them all in the kind of bliss that Kieran and Eve kept the people of the world now. If I hadn’t had something to occupy myself with—my obsession with Azazel—how long would it have taken before I’d gone out of my mind with boredom? After all, people were so simpering and stupid when you were controlling their brains like that. They were toys you played with. I looked at Kieran and Eve up there. I got it.

It was good that it wasn’t me up there, and that it was Kieran and Eve, who were good people. When I got bored, I killed. At least they only threw parties. They were so much better suited for the power than I’d ever been.

“What about you?” Abigail asked. “What’s your story?”

On the spot, I groped for a lie. I couldn’t think of anything, so I opted for a stripped-down version of the truth. “There wasn’t much to my life until I met a girl. We fell in love, and then we grew to hate each other. And then we got back together again. And then I realized we weren’t exactly good for each other. Well, I wasn’t good for her, anyway. Then Kieran and Eve took over the world, and I’m here.”

“You’d be good for each other now, wouldn’t you?” Abigail asked. “Now that Kieran and Eve are here, relationships work out really well, don’t they?”

I shrugged. “I wouldn’t know how to find her. I’m fine here.”

“Of course you are,” said Abigail. She smiled at me. “Was she pretty? This girl?”

I nodded. “Beautiful. And strong. So strong. She could handle anything that anyone threw at her. She was amazing.”

Abigail gave me a funny look. She didn’t say anything.

I waited.

She made a little laughing noise. “I’m sorry. It’s only that when you talk about that girl, you sound more excited about her than you do when you talk about Kieran and Eve. And I haven’t heard anyone do that since…” She furrowed her brow.

Damn it. Trust my feelings for Azazel to ruin everything. “It’s just a memory,” I said. “I remember feeling things for her. Since Eve and Kieran took over, I don’t think about her that much. But I used to be obsessed with her. She used to be everything to me.” That was true too, as far as it went. Azazel used to be the most real thing on earth to me, no matter if I wanted to keep her alive or kill her. Now, my guilt was more real to me than she was. It was what I breathed. It sustained me.

Abigail took my hand again. “Doesn’t sound very healthy.”

“No,” I muttered.

Right then, a loud whistle blew, drawing our attention to the town square, where Kieran and Eve wanted to announce the beginning of the games. They descended from their dais and walked among the people, looking into their eyes. I understood that they were choosing people to compete in the games. Part of the allure of the games, apparently, was that the participants were people in the towns that Kieran and Eve visited. It was a real local treat, watching friends and neighbors compete to entertain the rulers of the world. The games were also special because they were never televised. Only the people of that town got to see them, no one else.

Every once in a while, either Kieran or Eve pulled someone out of the crowd, and everyone cheered. They made their way through the mob of people, who parted for them wherever they walked. They were coming towards Abigail and me, so I tried to back away. I didn’t want them to see me.

But Abigail was still holding my hand, and she wouldn’t let me go. Instead, she surged forward, trying to get closer to Kieran and Eve.

I didn’t do anything for several moments, weighing my options. If I yanked my hand away, she’d know something was wrong. If I didn’t, Kieran and Eve might see me. I hesitated, trying to decide which was worse. I hesitated too long, because they were coming towards us.

Kieran’s gaze locked on mine. His eyes lit up in recognition. And his mouth curved into a small, satisfied smile. He crossed the distance to Abigail and me in a second. He wrapped his hand around her wrist. “This one!” he crowed.

Abigail’s face lit up. She whooped.

Kieran shot me one last look. His lips were peeled back like a viper ready to strike. But everyone else was smiling. And they thought Kieran was smiling too.

My heart thudded in my chest as they led Abigail away to be part of the games. Kieran hadn’t said anything. He’d recognized me, but he hadn’t done anything to me. Maybe I’d been right all along to think that they weren’t interested in me anymore.

But I was nervous. I should run away now. I could go to another town and hide. Start over. Lie low.

But Abigail twisted to look back at me. “Jason, aren’t you going to watch me in the games?”

I thought of the way Kieran had smiled. And I followed her to the center of the square.

* * *

The games were apparently nothing more exciting than wrestling matches. The first match was between two men who also worked on the farm with me. They were both strong, stock men with wide chests. I watched their match with disinterest. They were sloppy and untrained fighters. My training with the Sons of the Rising Sun meant I was quite good at hand fighting. I found their inept fumbling at each other completely boring. And I didn’t see why Kieran had picked Abigail to wrestle. She wasn’t going to be any good at it.

I’d kind of expected something a little more sophisticated from Kieran and Eve. Why not a revival of cricket or even football? I really should leave, I thought.

One of the men had pinned the other on the ground. The match was over. I yawned. I was going to leave. I didn’t want to watch Abigail try to fight someone. She couldn’t be good at it. I started to back into the crowd, hoping no one would miss my departure.

“Finish it!” yelled a voice.

I looked around. It was Kieran, standing up on his dais again, Eve by his side. They were both riveted by the match. Finish it? What did he mean?

The crowd took up the roar. “Finish it!” they screamed. They began to stomp their feet and clap their hands, chanting at the fighters in the square.

I glanced back at Kieran and Eve. They were controlling these people, weren’t they? But why? And when they said to finish it, did they mean—

The man pinning the other man twisted his opponent’s neck hard and quick. There was a snapping noise. The other man was dead.

The roar of approval from the crowd was thunderous.

I felt sick. What had I thought only a moment ago? That when I got bored, when I had the power that Kieran and Eve had, I killed? Had they gotten that bored?

Kieran motioned for silence, and the crowd quieted immediately. Of course. When you were Kieran and Eve, you could control every being on the planet. Except me, because I was chewing the leaves. Did they know that? Could they tell that my mind was my own, and their power didn’t work on it? Did that make them angry?

Kieran pointed at Abigail. “Face the champion!” he told her.

The crowd cheered.

Abigail stepped forward out of the others who’d been picked for the games. Her eyes were bright with excitement. She was grinning. She had no idea she was going to her death. Kieran and Eve were killing her, and they didn’t even have the decency to let her feel frightened of it. She stepped up to meet the man who’d just killed his fellow worker in the fields.

This wasn’t a fair match. The man outweighed Abigail. He was stronger than her. She didn’t stand a chance against him.

They circled each other for a minute.

The crowd was wild with whoops and yells.

The man advanced on Abigail, knocking her to the ground with no effort whatsoever.

Cheers.

Abigail hudded against the pavement of the square. She was bleeding. She was still smiling.

This was sickening. I looked at Kieran and Eve, who were both grinning like the Cheshire Cat, clearly enjoying every second of this. I looked back at Abigail. She was getting to her feet, ready for more.

I could stop this. I could stop that man from hurting Abigail. Watching his fighting style, I realized it would take me mere minutes to disable him.

But I didn’t move, because I knew that the minute I made my move, it would be easy to go too far with the man. I could kill him easily. And if I were fighting him, I’d want to kill him. I always wanted to. And I’d sworn never to hurt another human being for the rest of my life. I couldn’t. I couldn’t help Abigail.

The man picked Abigail up like she was a bag of feathers. He tossed her on the ground and was on her, his hands around her throat.

The crowd was in a frenzy, screaming for Abigail’s blood. “Finish it! Finish it!” they chanted.

I saw the man’s hands tighten.

And I dove out of the crowd into the man, knocking him off Abigail’s body. He was surprised, but he recovered quickly. We tumbled over and over each other in the square, trading blows. It only took me a second, though, as I’d predicted. I’d pinned him to the ground. My hands were around his neck.

How quickly the crowd changed sides. They were chanting again. “Finish it! Finish it!”

My hands tightened around his neck. I saw his face get red. His eyes bulged.

A face swam in front of my eyes. A sorority girl, tears staining her face, lying in her bed. I had a gun to her throat. “No,” she whispered. “Please no.”

I let go of the man. I staggered away from him, screaming in horror.

Kieran and Eve had run down off their dais. They were standing in the square. Kieran had Abigail by the arm. “Hi, Jason,” he said.

“We’ve been looking for you,” said Eve.

“Why?” I gasped. I was out of breath. “Why are you doing this?”

Kieran only laughed. “Why not? What do they matter anyway? You know how it feels, don’t you? You felt like this once. They’re insignificant insects. What’s the death of a few?”

“Don’t let it do that to you,” I said. “Don’t let the power make you think that way. You two were supposed to be good. You made everything paradise.”

They laughed together.

“Jason,” said Eve, “we want to have a baby, but we can’t.”

What did that have to do with anything?

“You care about this girl, don’t you?” asked Kieran, shaking Abigail by the elbow. He turned to her. “What’s your name?”

“Abigail,” she said brightly. She was so excited to be close to him. There was blood trickling down her face, but she didn’t even brush it away.

Kieran laughed. “Abigail,” he said. “Abigail, Azazel. Well, you’re predictable, aren’t you, Jason?” He grinned at me. “Did she dump you like yesterday’s garbage? Is that why you’re here with this pathetic substitute?”

I glared at him. “Abigail is just my friend.”

“But you saved her,” said Kieran. “Will you save her again? You know how this works, don’t you, Jason? How I can simply reach inside this little brain of Abigail’s and switch her off like the lights?”

That was the power he had now. I swallowed. “Why would you want to do that? Just for fun? Wouldn’t it be as fun to let her go?”

“I won’t do it,” said Kieran. “Not if you help us.”

“We just want you to tell us where Little Chance is,” said Eve. “When we saw him last, he was starting to call Kieran, ‘Daddy.’ We’ll give him a good home. We can offer him the whole world.”

My son. They wanted my son. They couldn’t have children, and so they wanted to take my son. I’d never let them have him. My throat felt dry. “I don’t know where he is.”

“Oh don’t be ridiculous,” said Kieran. “Of course you do. What kind of father doesn’t know where his son is?”

The kind of father who wants to keep his dark, evil past away from his innocent child. “I left him years ago.”

“You can do better than that,” said Eve. “Abigail’s counting on you.”

Kieran smiled at her. Abigail doubled over, coughing. A spray of red blood came out of her mouth. “Tell us,” said Kieran.

I didn’t know. I really didn’t know. “Let her go. I don’t know where he is.” But I wouldn’t tell them even if I did know.

Eve stuck out her lower lip. “He’s stubborn, Kieran.”

“And it really is too bad,” said Kieran. He let go of Abigail. She fell to the ground, lifeless. “Oops.”

They both laughed.

I gaped at them. They’d both gone completely and utterly insane. I took a step backwards. “I’ll never let you find him.”

“Please,” said Kieran. “As if you aren’t going to run off to check on him right now. Go right ahead, Jason. We’ll be right behind you.”

I didn’t move for a second.

“Run along,” said Eve.

Then I turned and sprinted away. I ran and ran. I didn’t look back.

This book is being posted on Tuesdays and Thursdays beginning 1/17/2012. To access other chapters, check out the Onset Posts Archive, here.